Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A top twenty

Steve Braunias recently sent me and a bunch of other New Zealand scribblers a list of the hundreds of titles that have won national book awards over the past fifty years. He asked each of us a to choose a top twenty from the list, and then compiled our choices into a top fifty for the The Spinoff Review of BooksThis is the list I sent to Braunias. 

Judith Binney, Redemption Songs (1996) 
Our Homeric epic. Binney's life of Te Kooti is inexhaustible, and turns its protagonist into a figure as wily and unkillable as Ulysses. 
Michael King, Moriori: a people rediscovered (1990)
Not many books have helped rescue a people from oblivion: this one did. 
Anne Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog (2004) 
Salmond's years of research on Polynesian outliers, where the sound of the sea is constant and the rest of the world consists of a series of visiting ships, gives her account of Cook's voyages and landfalls a veracity that no library-bound scholar could achieve.
Michael Jackson, Pieces of Music (1995)
Jackson is a forgotten man in New Zealand, but an honoured scholar and writer overseas. This series of prose poems shows a young man with a head full of Camus and Apollinaire floating through postwar New Zealand.
MK Joseph, The Time of Achamoth (1978) 
Time travel stations hidden in the King Country, visits to the Paris Commune and a future dystopia, a fight with a monster living in Karl Marx's grave: what more can a novel offer? The Time of Achamoth is a neglected masterpiece.
CK Stead, Smith's Dream (1972)  
A rewrite of Mulgan's Man Alone by a young man obsessed with apocalypse. Smith's Dream has haunted Stead: he wrote it quickly, so quickly he might have been taking dictation, and he knows that the painstaking and overstuffed novels he has created in recent decades have lacked the power and precision of his debut.  
Nga Iwi o Tainui, ed. Rei Te Hurihuri Jones and Bruce Biggs (1989)
An extraordinary arsenal of images and symbols and stories, wrought from the oral tradition of a great and greatly
wronged iwi. 
Michael King, Te Puea (1978)
A book that introduced the Pakeha world to the monarchy on their doorstep and the Maori civil rights movements of the twentieth century.
Martin Edmond, The Autobiography of My Father (1990)
Edmond reinvented creative non-fiction with a magnificent sequence of books in the '90s and early 2000s. This isn't his best book - he was still learning how to link anecdote to anecdote, still apologising for the dreams and hallucinations he would later treat as revelations - but it'll do. 
Douglas Wright, Ghost Dance (2008)
Wright's prose is so exact and sensual that he manages to make the ugliness of his illness strangely erotic.
Dick Scott, Seven Lives on Salt River (1989)
A regionalist masterpiece, and a rebuke to urbanites who disregard the history of places like the Kaipara. 
Albert Wendt, Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1980)
A huge book that shows Wendt's extraordinary ambition and energy. 
Kendrick Smithyman, Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985)
The sly old fox of New Zealand verse. I published a book about him; of course I'm going to nominate him. 
Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin, Nga Morehu (1987)
Judith Binney made oral history respectable again in the academy, after long decades when it was shunned. The ghost of James Cowan must have been happy. 
Frank McKay, The Life of James K Baxter (1991)
McKay's conservatism and tepid tone makes his account of a hellraiser's life unintentional funny. When he deals with the Baxter crew's orgies and drug-taking McKay resembles a Presbyterian vicar tiptoeing past a brothel. 
Janet Charman, Cold Snack (2008) 
Charman is a schoolteacher from Avondale. She writes what she sees in tight, truncated lines that build steadily in intensity. 
Allen Curnow, An Incorrigible Music (1980)
Curnow may have resembled a pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing professor, and the academic industry may be doing its best to make him safe and presentable, but make no mistake: he was a dark magus. Curnow's death-obsessed imagination finds its perfect subject in 'Moro Assassinato', a long, bloodthirsty, brilliant poem that begins in the waves of Karekare and moves to Italy, where the Red Brigades kidnap and slay the country's top politician. 
Tony Simpson, The Sugarbag Years (1974) 
By the seventies, Depression-era New Zealand seemed like a lost civilisation, a brutal and impoverished place that had been determinedly forgotten. Simpson explored the ruins of remote work camps, and excavated stories of suffering and rebellion from old men and women. 
Michelle Leggott, Dia (1994)
Leggott's book upset all the right reviewers, who complained they couldn't understand her poems. As Wallace Stevens said, though, great poetry communicates before it is understood. 
Sam Sampson, Everything Talks (2009) 
Sampson is an unrepentant avant-gardist, a spinner of Joycean word games, an enemy of linear thought and full stops. He remains holed up in the Waitakeres, where he takes inspiration from the rune-like patterns flying ducks and kereru make on the evening sky.  

Monday, May 14, 2018

A dream of the road

[I almost slipped text this into Ghost South Road at the last moment. Perhaps I'll print it out on loose sheets of paper, and tuck it into copies of the book at this Thursday's launch.] 
Afterword: a Dream 
One night towards the end of 2017, after a few hours spent editing this book, I dreamed about the Great South Road. I dreamed about all the vehicles that had ever travelled the road. I dreamed them free from time, but I could not liberate them from the road. 
I dreamed the traffic lights in the middle of Papakura, where the Great South Road intersects with O'Shanessey Street. Cars, horses, wagons, bikes, ambulances, trucks, vans, rickshaws: all them spread, north and south, along both routes. 
At the bottom of the traffic lights a man in tweeds leaned out the glassless window of a Model T Ford and shouted into the jammed intersection. He shouted at a wagonload of blue-coated soldiers, 65th Regiment men, as they passed a brown bottle around. The horse that had carried them all the way from Rangiriri - suddenly I knew that they had fired drunkenly at Tawhiao's pa at Rangiriri, that they had crawled through the mud to its ramparts, swearing and praying - shivered, and stomped its hooves hopelessly. 
In the dream I was bodiless, weightless: I could float alongside, above, the trapped vehicles. A Cityline bus with the red and white paint job I remembered from the eighties waited with flat tyres in the queue, followed by a taxi where a young Sikh man with a frail beard sat alone. The young man frowned weakly, as though he were too tired to do more than feign agitation, and gave his horn an occasional passionless blast. 
One of the imperial soldiers staggered to the wagon's edge, over a sack that might be filled with potatoes, or with a Kingite corpse. He unbuttoned his pants with one hand, saluted with the other, and pissed into the road's mixture of mud and gravel and melting tar. 
The cottages and stores beside the road were wobbling stage sets, painted in imperial pink, with dark holes for windows. I heard a musket clear its throat, saw a rip appear in a cardboard door. 
I floated higher above the jammed vehicles, and looked again at Papakura's traffic light. It was a brownish red, the colour of a rotten apple. 
I felt, during the dream, like a failure. My brain had tried to liberate the Great South Road's vehicles from history, but it had only created a terminal traffic jam. The road's users were imprisoned, not in their own years and eras, but in a morose eternal motionlessness. 
I was glad to wake. I lay on my sofa and listened to crickets working in the backyard dark. I heard the low mobile hum of a lone motorbike in the distance. The road was open. The traffic of history continued.  

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Ghosting the road

Here's one of the publicity statements for Ghost South Road. We're hoping that the book has a little something for everyone. Come and have a beer, or a kava, or both, at the launch on May the 17th
Ordinarily we think of the Great South Road as a way to get from one place to another - as a route to work or to a shop or a sports field.
But the Great South Road is a path through time as well as space. In the century and a half since it was built, the road has seen a series of terrible and strange events - an invasion, a war, refugee flows, riots, outbreaks of religious hysteria, epidemics, and much more.
Relics and reminders of this history - eroding forts, cemeteries stuffed with soldiers and pox victims, churches with bullet holes in their walls, bridges where bandits waited, pubs the police loved to raid, parks where lovers congregated - sit beside the traffic of South Auckland and the Waikato.
Since 2012 writer Scott Hamilton and photographers Paul Janman and Ian Powell have been journeying along the Great South Road.
Hamilton, Janman and Powell have followed the route of the imperial army that marched out of Auckland and invaded the Waikato Kingdom in 1863.
They have visited the roadside glades and forests where Maori refugees driven from Auckland by the war camped.
They have located the churchyard where the forgotten first Anzacs - white Australian and Pakeha New Zealand volunteers who fought together in 1863 - are buried together.
They have traced the path of the near-disastrous flight of Leila Adair, the scantily clad pioneer aviatrix, who outraged and titillated the conservative citizens of Hamilton with her new-fangled balloon in 1894.
They have followed the trail of the billions of rats who poured down the road from Auckland in 1900, infected with the bubonic plague, and visited Maori villages blockaded and starved by white militia during the smallpox epidemic of 1913.
They have searched for bullet casings left by the pair of stylish gay bandits who politely robbed Auckland motorists in the 1920s.
They have crawled through a cave where communist fugitives printed their banned newspaper during World War Two.
They have watched road workers sing an old Tongan lullaby beside a concrete mixer amidst the afternoon traffic in Papakura.
They have interviewed boy racers and religious maniacs, artists and road crash victims, old soldiers and new cops.
Ghost South Road is a book made with Hamilton's words and Janman and Powell's pictures. It includes thirteen chapters, and hundreds of black and white and colour images. Ghost South Road was commissioned by Auckland's mayor, and has been published with the help of Creative New Zealand.
Ghost South Road shows that both the history and the present of of Aotearoa New Zealand are wilder and weirder than anyone imagined.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Quigley: an update

Afterwards, Quigley rode the motorway.

He sped backwards, towards a childhood memory, a raft riding Waitomo's darkness. Streetlamps & taillights burned like worms. Tar was cavewater.

Quigley accelerated. This time he would wreck the raft, this time the blackness would imbibe him.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The forgotten dead?

New Zealand is a nation of mass graves. Beside St Johns church in Drury, the first Anzacs to die in battle - four white Australians & four Pakeha, slain in 1863, soon after the invasion of the Waikato - share the same plot. The volcanic earth fills their mouths like black bread. I wrote about the first Anzacs for The Spinoff.

Footnote: I just left flowers for the victims of the 1863 Anzac invasion on the stone at Drury. The obelisk has traditionally been ignored by the RSA, but this Anzac Day poppies have mysteriously appeared on its white slope. History is an accumulation of ironies. Saint Johns was a fortified frontier church, a tribute to and tool of Anglican imperialism, a settlers' refuge during Maori guerrilla raids. Now, after the death of the last white parishioner, the church is being used for Maori-language services. A carving celebrates its reinvention. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Running the blockade

I've written about Allen Curnow & his blockade of the Pacific for The Spinoff. Curnow was a great poet, but he was also, like most great poets, a dark magus.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Malo Mark

Malo aupito to Mark Amery, who has mentioned my essay about the Seleka Club and the fundraising exhibition for Seleka at Small Axe studio in his weekly roundup of art events for The Big Idea, and encouraged his readers to help out Seleka.